Masculinity and the Role of Sin: John Piper

I’d like to start examining what specific evangelical leaders say about masculinity and manhood by starting with one of the people who has been at this job the longest – John Piper, of Bethlehem Baptist in the Twin Cities. Piper is no longer the primary preacher at Bethlehem Baptist after stepping down about a year and a half ago to focus primarily on his Desiring God ministries role (Bethlehem did a very good job of keeping this quiet, as I didn’t know about it until speaking to my cousins who attend the church).

Piper, unlike the favorite macho human punching bag, Mark Driscoll, does not exhibit a bro-based theology. He is a sensitive man, one who cries on stage when he thinks about God’s grace, and who seems comfortable with easy emotional release – the kind which Driscoll, were he not a contemporary of Piper’s, would probably frown on as part of the “pussification of America.”

But for all of Piper’s modeling of a sensitive manhood, the things he writes, endorses, and publishes about biblical masculinity create the same kind of contradictions and problematic developments of manhood as Driscoll’s do. Piper places the responsibility for a daughter’s modesty in the father’s hand. As the head of the household, men are to spiritually lead and provide for their families. In terms of theology, Driscoll and Piper are not all that different.

Famously, Piper commented a couple of years ago that Christianity has a “masculine feel.” Proper masculinity is, in Piper’s estimation, central to the Gospel of Christianity – central to a demonstration of God’s love for his people. Particularly, masculinity expressed properly within a complementarian ethic is a central part of the display of God’s love for the church. God is, in Piper’s world, masculine – no question.

Since the 1980s, Piper has been teaching that women are not given the authority to teach over men, that men are the leaders of both the church and the home, and that women can be deacons, prophets, and missionaries – so long as it does not allow them to exercise pastoral authority over (white) men. Naturally, when women are missionaries to brown countries, their role as a pastor to their congregation is not nearly so threatening as it would be back in the mostly white homeland.

This teaching comes from a supposed fidelity of Biblical interpretation – this is what the Bible says and therefore we must follow it. Paul’s select teachings about gender tell us everything we modern people have to know about our roles within the church – except we can ignore certain teachings like head coverings as metaphorical and culturally defined.

Piper’s teaching goes well beyond the role of women in leadership, however. Like we’ll see in many of the teachings about masculinity throughout evangelical purity culture, the purpose of marriage in Piper’s world is to have a mother and a father who produce children. And the role of the mother and the father cannot be confused because, as Piper says, it might affect the child’s “sexual preference”:

When manhood and womanhood are confused at home, the consequences are deeper than may show up in a generation. There are dynamics in the home that direct the sexual preferences of the children and shape their concept of manhood and womanhood.  Especially crucial in the matter of sexual preference is a father’s firm and loving affirmation of a son’s masculinity and a daughter’s femininity.3 The father must be a man. But how can this kind of manly affirmation be cultivated in an atmosphere where role differences between masculinity and femininity are constantly denied or diminished for the sake of gender-leveling and sex-blindness?

Piper’s teachings here verge into the transphobic as well, commenting that feminism has created a confusion of what it means to be a man or a woman, resulting in little boys not knowing the difference between adult men and adult women (the concern of gender confusion always for little boys, never little girls). And this issue, for Piper, is at the center of a question of societal morality – the failure of men to be men and women to be women threatens the very fabric of our societal structure.

However, as a careful study of Piper’s Biblical manhood demonstrates, masculinity in the evangelical sense is nothing more than a white-washed, WASP-y American ideal. It is tied to violence in the name of protection; it is tied to class in the name of provision. It is tied to whiteness in the name of leadership and missional living.

What’s more is that every man who fails to live up to the masculine ideal Piper sets forth is not proof that the masculine ideal is total bunk. Rather, failure to live up to the masculine ideal is proof that we live in a fallen, sinful world. Sin, for much of the purity movement and evangelical conservativism, becomes a “get out of jail free” card in discussions of gender and equality. Continued examples of male power out of control, of the mandate for masculinity going awry in the form of spiritual and emotional abuse, and the allegations of various sexual misdeeds throughout churches across America – all these are the result, in Piper’s eyes, of sin in the world. We are somehow called to this perfect vision of gender but are unable to perform it correctly because sin.

The sin excuse effectively short-circuits any and all arguments about masculinity within the church. It prevents any and all examination of the theology itself, instead precluding any such discussion with a victim-blaming excuse of sinfulness. A victim of rape who points to the theology they were taught as part of the shame they felt is written off as the victim of horrible sinfulness, unconnected to any theological teaching. At all costs we must protect the theological thought, regardless of the ever-growing mountain of examples of how the theology itself causes shame and leads people astray.

This sin excuse becomes embedded in the concept of masculinity throughout purity culture. A man unable to control himself – after being told over and over again that he won’t be able to do so – blames his sinful nature, asks forgiveness, and moves on to sin again. The sinful nature, often crystallized in the form of one’s natural biological sexual desire, becomes an Other to the very men for whom it should be an integrated part of their body. Their sexual appetite becomes not something they can understand, control, and even use authentically. Instead, such appetites are a threat – a metaphorical dragon they have to slay every time they walk out the front door. And this sin, seemingly insurmountable, becomes such a large threat that any action “giving in to sin” immediately becomes something outside of the self – instead of an expression of a sexual appetite.

This is why consent and healthy sexual ethics don’t particularly enter the conversation – because with a Sin-dragon to defeat, there is no need to discuss consent. It’s all a question of whether or not you’re sinning, not whether or not you’re actually doing things with consent. And with sexual desire as a barely controlled Other, it’s no surprise that sexual abuses like rape are often characterized as out-of-control desire as opposed to a calculated crime of power.

Sin has failed to be a useful concept in this world of "biblical" masculinity. Sinfulness has become the scapegoat for any and all false teachings and poor theologies, forcing us to ignore our teachings of masculinity in favor of the illogical “no true Scotsman” fallacy. What we need is not a more robust understanding of masculinity, but a willingness to overhaul the entire system – theodicy and all.

[Photo credit: Vaquero Francis]